Regular Expressions Recursion


Recursion is mostly available in Perl-compatible flavors, such as:

  • Perl
  • PCRE
  • Oniguruma
  • Boost

Recurse the whole pattern

The construct (?R) is equivalent to (?0) (or \g<0>) - it lets you recurse the whole pattern:


This will match properly balanced angle brackets with any text in-between the brackets, like <a<b>c<d>e>.

Recurse into a subpattern

You can recurse into a subpattern using the following constructs (depending on the flavor), assuming n is a capturing group number, and name the name of a capturing group.

  • (?n)
  • \g<n>
  • \g'0'
  • (?&name)
  • \g<name>
  • \g'name'
  • (?P>name)

The following pattern:


Will match text such as: [<<><>><>] - well balanced angle brackets within square brackets. Recursion is often used for balanced constructs matching.

Subpattern definitions

The (?(DEFINE)...) construct lets you define subpatterns you may reference later through recursion. When encountered in the pattern it will not be matched against.

This group should contain named subpattern definitions, which will be accessible only through recursion. You can define grammars this way:

(?x) # ignore pattern whitespace
  (?<string> ".*?" )
  (?<number> \d+ )
    \s* (?:
      | (?&number)
      | (?&list)
    ) \s*
  (?<list> \[ (?&value) (?: , (?&value) )* \] )

This pattern will validate text like the following:

[42, "abc", ["foo", "bar"], 10]

Note how a list can contain one or more values, and a value can itself be a list.

Relative group references

Subpatterns can be referenced with their relative group number:

  • (?-1) will recurse into the previous group
  • (?+1) will recurse into the next group

Also usable with the \g<N> syntax.

Backreferences in recursions (PCRE)

In PCRE, matched groups used for backreferences before a recursion are kept in the recursion. But after the recursion they all reset to what they were before entering it. In other words, matched groups in the recursion are all forgotten.

For example:




Recursions are atomic (PCRE)

In PCRE, it doesn't trackback after the first match for a recursion is found. So


doesn't match


because after it matched aa in the recursion, it never try again to match only a.